SweetSpot: Minnesota Twins

'Good guy' Allen a smart hire for the Twins

November, 26, 2014
Nov 26
Neil AllenIcon SportswireAllen brings 11 years of MLB playing experience, as well as an eye for developing talent, to the Twins.

A few years ago, during a conversation with a former major league manager in between tapings of "Baseball Tonight," the topic of my favorite baseball player came up.

“Oh, he’s one of the good ones,” said the manager after giving me the usual puzzled look I get when I tell people who that player was. The manager went on to explain that he didn't know my favorite player personally, but that he'd heard many positive things about him.

I thought about the player again on Tuesday. The transaction that has intrigued me the most this offseason isn't the signings of Pablo Sandoval Hanley Ramirez or Russell Martin, but the move announced on Nov. 25 -- that the Minnesota Twins had hired Neil Allen as their new pitching coach.

Allen, a former closer for the New York Mets, was my first childhood favorite. (I liked relief pitchers.) I had his rookie card made into a T-shirt decal and wore it to a baseball card show at which he appeared in the spring of 1983.

Allen was nice enough to engage an 8-year-old in conversation, and when he saw my shirt he promised me that he would pitch better. A couple of weeks later, Allen was traded to the Cardinals in one of the Mets' best deals. The move netted them All-Star first baseman Keith Hernandez.

Nonetheless, I remained loyal to Allen. He would pitch in the majors until 1989 with the Cardinals, Yankees, White Sox and Indians -- a decent (albeit not great) pitcher best known for a high leg kick and a big curveball.

I amassed a collection of Allen's baseball cards and photos and commissioned a watercolor painting of the image on his rookie card. In 2011, I interviewed him for a piece that reflected on his tenure with the Mets. He was extremely appreciative that someone would view his four-year stint with the team so favorably.

AP Photo/Sal VederDuring his 11-year MLB career, Allen was known for his high leg kick and big curveball.
Allen is a baseball lifer who has persevered even through difficult personal circumstances. He is a recovering alcoholic and in 2012 his wife, Lisa, died of an aneurysm.

Other than a season spent as Yankees bullpen coach under Joe Torre in 2005, Allen has toiled in the minor leagues since 1995, working at every level from short-season A ball to Triple-A, where he spent the last four seasons with the Rays' affiliate, the Durham Bulls. Name a young pitcher who has succeeded with the Rays of late -- Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, Matt Moore, etc. -- and chances are Allen has worked with him.

Allen had a couple of major league near-misses along the way. He was rumored to be Mel Stottlemyre’s replacement as Yankees pitching coach in 2005 and was a finalist to be Bobby Valentine’s staff with the Red Sox in 2012.

Now, at age 56, Allen will finally get his chance. He replaces Rick Anderson, who was let go in September after 13 seasons with Minnesota. The Twins hired Allen to bring a fresh perspective. And he will: He comes from an organization whose major league team embraces the changeup like no other (Rays pitchers have thrown nearly 13,000 over the last three seasons) to one with a more traditional approach (Twins pitchers have thrown about half as many change ups over the same span).

But Allen should be flexible enough to work within the Twins' existing pitch-to-contact approach. He can speak from experience, having once thrown a two-hit shutout in 1986 against the Yankees in which he had no strikeouts and no walks.

Allen faces a challenging task, no doubt. The Twins have finished last in the AL in ERA in three of the last four seasons -- and they were next-to-last in the fourth year. They have four straight seasons of at least 92 losses.

Minnesota's projected 2015 rotation includes …

•  Ricky Nolasco, who signed a four-year, $48 million contract last offseason, and had a 5.38 ERA in 27 starts while dealing with an elbow injury. Nolasco has a history of great strikeout-to-walk numbers, but his ERA has never been in line with those of a high-end control pitcher.

•  Mike Pelfrey, who has battled injuries and ineffectiveness during a two-year, 34-start tenure in which his ERA was 5.56. During his prime with the Mets, Pelfrey was a hard thrower who never found the second pitch that would elevate him to ace-level status. He’s owed $5.5 million for 2015, so the Twins will be looking to get anything they can out of him.

•  Kyle Gibson, whose six starts of at least seven innings and no runs allowed tied for the second-most in the majors (the same number as Clayton Kershaw) in 2014. Gibson has a good changeup and limited opponents to 12 home runs in 179 innings last season, but still finished with a 4.47 ERA.

Those three are among the pitchers whose potential the Twins have not yet maximized. “I’ve got to find a way to reach each individual,” Allen said during a conference call on Tuesday, explaining his approach to working with pitchers.

AP Photo/Mike JanesAllen, 56, is finally getting a chance to impart his pitching wisdom in the big leagues.
That personal approach is one of Allen’s strengths, according to one of his star pupils. “Neil is the most positive person I've encountered in baseball,” said Archer, now a starter for the Rays, in an e-mail. “Every day, whether you threw a gem or gave up 10 runs, he brought a smile and optimism to work. Since he had such a great big-league career, his knowledge of situational pitching helped propel my career."

It’s not just current major leaguers who speak highly of his work. Ten-year minor-league vet Brian Baker pitched two seasons for Allen, including one in which he racked up a 6.62 ERA.

“He didn’t care if you were a top prospect or an innings eater,” Baker said via Twitter. “He treated everyone the same. Every day, he had a story from back in his playing days, ready to make you laugh. If you were having a (bad) day, he could make you forget about it. If you needed help on the mound, he was the guy who could fix it. He knew his stuff.

“He had pitching drills, little tweaks of mechanics, towel drills, different philosophies to get you going back in the right direction on the mound. And they always seemed to work for you. He wanted you to succeed and he did everything he could every day to help make that happen.”

Now Allen will get the chance to help mold those mechanics at the highest level. I don’t root for the Twins, but I’ll be hoping that things work out well for him as he gets a shot at the big time.

After all, he’s one of the good guys.

Kernels of Wisdom: Week in review

August, 4, 2012
Theme of the week: Late-game drama.

  • Sunday's Yankees/Red Sox tilt featured a 10th-inning go-ahead single by Pedro Ciriaco. There's been only one other go-ahead hit by a Bostonian, in extra innings, in the Bronx, over the past eight years: Jacoby Ellsbury's 14th-inning homer on Sept. 25. And it was the first non-home run version of such a hit since April 22, 2001, when Jason Varitek singled off Mariano Rivera in the 10th, driving in Trot Nixon from second.
  • Anthony Rizzo hit the Cubs' second walk-off homer of the season on Sunday to beat those hated Cardinals 4-2. It's the first time Chicago has defeated St. Louis via walk-off homer since Aramis Ramirez took Dennys Reyes deep in April 2009.
  • Milwaukee's Corey Hart homered in the bottom of the 10th against Washington on Sunday as well. His, unfortunately, was not a walk-off because the Nationals had scored twice in the top of the 10th. Hart finished 4-for-5, including an extra-inning homer, in a home game that his team still managed to lose (in this case, by an 11-10 score). He's the first player to do that since Sept. 7, 2004, when Corey Patterson of the Cubs launched his second homer of the game in the bottom of the 12th in a 7-6 loss to Montreal.It was a dubious first in Brewers franchise history.
  • [+] EnlargeOakland A's
    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesThe Athletics on Friday won their second 15-inning game in the span of five days.

  • Oakland is still very much in the walk-off business, securing their 12th of the season with a sacrifice fly by Jemile Weeks on Monday -- in the bottom of the 15th. By inning, it was the latest "sac-fly-off" since Raul Ibanez brought an end to that 19-inning game between the Phillies and Reds last season. It was Oakland's first walk-off sac fly since Rickey Henderson‘s 15th-inning winner to beat Toronto on May 23, 1981.
  • The Athletics played 15 more innings on Friday night against Toronto, and won on another sacrifice fly (by Coco Crisp) in the bottom of the 15th. Oakland leads the majors in walk-off wins with 13. The Nationals have eight. No team, by the way, has ever had two "sac-fly-offs" in the 15th or later in the same season.
  • After surrendering three runs in the top of the 10th on Wednesday, Texas walked off with an 11-10 victory over the Angels on Elvis Andrus' two-run single to cap a four-run rally. It was the most runs the Rangers had scored in an extra inning since May 5, 2009, when they put up a six-spot in the 10th at Seattle. Andrus hit the first walk-off single, with his team trailing in extras, of the season. And it was the first single to turn an extra-inning deficit into an extra-inning walk-off, in Rangers/Senators franchise history.
  • Justin Morneau (4-for-4, HBP) and Jamey Carroll (4-for-4, walk, go-ahead single in the 10th) both had "perfect" days at the plate for Minnesota. The Twins are the only team this season to have two players each record four-plus hits and a hit in every at-bat. Ben Revere and Ryan Doumit both did it on June 22 in Cincinnati.
Statistical support for this column provided by Baseball-Reference.com and the Elias Sports Bureau.

Kernels of Wisdom: Week in review

April, 14, 2012

  • Austin Jackson scored a run in each of the Tigers' first six games this season. That was the longest streak by a Detroit batter to start a season since Darrell Evans crossed the plate in each of the first eight contests in 1986. And it's the longest streak by a Tigers leadoff hitter since 1939, when one of Jackson's center field predecessors, Barney McCosky, also scored in the first eight games of the season. In game seven on Friday, however, Jackson was on base only once (he walked in the eighth) and was stranded at third.
  • [+] EnlargeAustin Jackson
    Duane Burleson/AP PhotoAustin Jackson is having a solid season for the Tigers early on.
    The Red Sox managed to blow a three-run lead in the ninth and a two-run lead in the 11th in losing a wild one to Detroit on Sunday, 13-12. It was the first time Boston had scored a dozen runs and lost since May 31, 1970, when they were on the wrong end of a 22-13 slugfest with the White Sox at Fenway.
  • Alfredo Aceves gave up all three ninth-inning runs in Sunday’s game without retiring a batter, making him just the second Red Sox pitcher in the live-ball era to work zero innings pitched in each of his first two appearances of the year. Guido Grilli faced one batter each in the first two games of the 1966 season, and didn't get either of them out.
  • The Tigers used eight pitchers in that 13-12, come-from-behind win over the Red Sox. It marked just the second time in 70 years that Detroit had come back to win a game in which their starter surrendered seven-plus runs without getting through the third inning. Omar Olivares was the starter in 1997 when the Tigers rallied to beat Baltimore 11-8.
  • On Sunday, the Yankees managed just three hits -- all doubles. That same day, the Twins had just two hits as Jason Hammel posted the longest no-hit bid of the year so far. Both Minnesota knocks were doubles. It's the first time in almost three years that two teams have done that on the same day. But then … the Royals did it against Oakland (three hits, three doubles) on Monday … and the Athletics did it against Kansas City (one hit) on Tuesday.It's the first time since at least 1917 that there have been three straight days where a team had every hit be a double.
  • On Sunday, Jeff Samardzija (making just his sixth career start) was afforded the chance at a complete game. He had to be pulled after giving up a two-out homer that pulled the Nationals to within a run. Four days later, Matt Garza was en route to a shutout against Milwaukee, but was pulled after committing a two-out error that allowed the inning to continue. So the Cubs had two pitchers this week leave the game after 8.2 innings pitched.The Cubs hadn't had two pitchers work exactly 8.2 innings in the same season since 1995 (Jaime Navarro and Frank Castillo).
  • In Sunday's Cardinals-Brewers game, you could say the teams spread it around. In the 9-3 Milwaukee victory, the 12 runs were charged to eight different pitchers. In fact, every hurler who appeared in the game ended up with at least one earned run on his record.It's the first game in eight seasons where the teams combined to use eight or more pitchers, and every single one of them got charged with at least one earned run. The last time that happened was on Sept. 9, 2004, when the Royals erupted for a 26-5 victory over the Tigers in the first game of a doubleheader.
  • James Shields got called for a balk Wednesday on an illegal pickoff throw to third. That was in the bottom of the fifth -- after Justin Verlander had been called for his own balk in the top of the fifth.It was the first MLB game to feature balks by both teams in the same inning since Aug. 16, 2004, when the Rangers' Mickey Callaway and then-Indian CC Sabathia committed them in the fourth inning of a 5-2 Texas win.
  • In that same game, Verlander threw eight shutout innings before getting tagged for four runs and the loss in the top of the ninth. He became the first pitcher to throw eight scoreless innings, then surrender four (or more) runs in the ninth to take a loss since Tim Hudson did it for the Braves on Sept. 22, 2005. Hudson allowed a three-run homer to Shane Victorino of the Phillies for most of that damage before Macay McBride had to come in and get the final out.
  • In Monday's Yankees-Orioles game, Derek Jeter went a perfect 4-for-4 for the visitors, while Matt Wieters went a perfect 4-for-4 in the home dugout. It was the first game this year to feature two players with four-hit games.Since the start of 2010, there's been only one other MLB game where a player for each team went a perfect 4-for-4 or better -- and it was between the Orioles and Yankees. On July 30, 2011, Vladimir Guerrero’s 4-for-4 was the bright spot for Baltimore as the Yankees -- led by Robinson Cano's 5-for-5 -- demolished them 17-3.
  • In Yu Darvish's much-anticipated major league debut on Monday, he allowed five earned runs, four walks, hit a batter, threw one wild pitch -- and won the game because the Rangers spotted him eight runs.He's the first pitcher in the live-ball era to win his major league debut while giving up all of those stats (or worse). Even take away the wild pitch, and only one other hurler has hit five earned runs, four walks, one HBP and a win in his debut. That was the Blue Jays' Matt Williams on Aug. 2, 1983.
  • Jeff Gray of the Twins earned the first one-pitch victory of the season on Wednesday. Gray threw his one and only pitch to Peter Bourjos to end the top of the seventh, after which the Twins took the lead in the bottom of the inning. The Twins, conveniently, recorded the last one-pitch win last season, by Matt Capps on Sept. 23.
  • Speaking of pitching oddities, the Royals-Athletics game was finally called in the top of the eighth inning on Tuesday after its second rain delay. Aaron Crow, who had pitched the seventh for the Royals, was credited with his first career save. Technically, he does meet the save criteria set forth in the rule book, notably that of being the "finishing pitcher" in a game his team won.The last player to be credited with a save prior to the ninth inning was Tony Sipp of the Indians, who received one in a rain-shortened affair with Tampa Bay on July 23, 2010. That also remains Sipp's only career save.
  • On Tuesday, Freddy Garcia of the Yankees famously threw five wild pitches to tie the single-game American League record for such a thing. He was also the first pitcher to throw five-plus wild pitches in an outing of less than five innings. But two of those wild pitches scored runs for Baltimore. Another run scored on an error. That made the Orioles the first team in two years to score four-plus runs with one or fewer RBI. (The one RBI they did get came on a home run.)For the Orioles, it was just the second time since moving to Baltimore that they scored four runs on one or zero RBI. The other was in their inaugural year: On June 27, 1954, they scored three times on errors by the Athletics before finally walking off on an RBI single in the bottom of the 11th.
  • Oakland "walked off" in unusual fashion on Wednesday when Jonathan Broxton plunked Yoenis Cespedes and Jonny Gomes to force in the winning run in the bottom of the 12th. It was the first game to end with back-to-back hit batters since Sept. 2, 1966, when Stu Miller of the Orioles hit Al Weis and Tommie Agee of the White Sox in the bottom of the 11th. (I admit that Elias found this a lot quicker than I would have.) However, Gomes became the first Athletics batter to get hit by a pitch with the bases loaded in extra innings since at least 1947. (It had never happened in the Baseball Reference "play index" era.) It's also noteworthy that Oakland scored its two runs in the 12th without a base hit. The three runners ahead of Cespedes reached on two walks and an error.
  • Before Friday, there had been 36 double-digit strikeout games by teams this week (including seven games where both teams did it) but not one by a single pitcher. Max Scherzer's 11-strikeout outing on Friday afternoon broke that string.
  • In Wednesday's 17-8 eruption between the Giants and Rockies, there were four pitchers (Tim Lincecum, Jeremy Guthrie, Guillermo Mota, Jeremy Affeldt)who all gave up at least six hits and at least five runs. It's the first time that that has happened since July 17, 1998, when Seattle dropped an 18-5 score on the Royals at the Kingdome.(It is also very intriguing that, in that game, both teams posted a seven-run inning. Except I don't know of a good way to search line scores.)

    By the way, on their next two games on Thursday and Friday, the Giants promptly had two pitchers (Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain)carry no-hit bids into the sixth inning. The only team to have bids in consecutive games last season was also the Giants. That happened on May 8 and 10 by Ryan Vogelsong and Lincecum.
  • The Orioles and Blue Jays combined to hit seven home runs in Baltimore's 7-5 victory on Friday. All were solo shots. It's the first game with seven-plus home runs that were all solo since a July 20, 2010 game at Camden Yards between the Rays and Orioles.
  • There's always one guy left out.In the 10-9 "pitchers’ duel" between the Twins and Angels on Thursday, 17 of the 18 starters recorded at least one base hit. Howard Kendrick was the lone collar, going 0-for-4 plus a walk.

    It's the first nine-inning game this season to have 17 different starters record a base hit. There were three games last season where all 18 did.
  • Minnesota got a four-hit game from Denard Span and three-hit games from Joe Mauer, Josh Willingham and Danny Valencia. It's the first time the Twins have had four players with three hits, including at least one with four, since they dropped a 20-1 score on the White Sox on May 21, 2009.

On the same day 82-year-old Detroit Tigers owner Mike Ilitch decided to go all-in on Prince Fielder and a World Series title chase, the San Francisco Giants showed some fiscal responsibility by reportedly agreeing with two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum on a two-year, $40.5 million contract. The deal means the two sides will avoid going to arbitration this year and next, his final season before hitting free agency.

This is absolutely the correct approach in handling Lincecum. There is no need to negotiate a long-term deal with a pitcher two years before he's a free agent. Pitchers are risky creatures as is, so why take the risk before you have to? This gives you two more seasons to chase your own World Series title with Lincecum, Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain (if the Giants sign him past 2012).

There seems to be a mindset that teams need to "get something" for a player if they might not be able to sign him to a long-term deal when he becomes a free agent. But why does this make sense if you have a chance to win? The Brewers could have traded Fielder before last season, knowing he was unlikely to stay in Milwaukee, but instead went for it and actually strengthened the club instead by acquiring Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum. They made the playoffs and gave themselves a shot at the World Series. It was the right call. The Tampa Bay Rays are taking a similar approach this season with B.J. Upton.

Compare that to the Minnesota Twins with Johan Santana in 2008. They traded Santana for a package of prospects that didn't turn out, but the biggest problem with that trade is that the Twins ended up missing the playoffs when they lost a tiebreaker game to the White Sox. With Santana, they win the division. And once you're in the playoffs, anything can happen; who knows, the Twins may have won the World Series with Santana.

I did a chat earlier on Tuesday in which somebody suggested since the Phillies might not be able to afford Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels in 2013 (Hamels will be a free agent) that maybe they should look to trade one of the three. What? Of course not. You go for it in 2012 behind those guys and if you lose Hamels, so be it.

Next season, you'll certainly hear cries that the Giants should look to trade Lincecum. Get something for him while you can. Or you can try and win another World Series title.

The Giants may decide that Lincecum won't be worth that $100 million investment in the future. Maybe they'll try to sign him and he'll bolt, like Jose Reyes with the Mets. But there's nothing wrong with trying to win now.

Especially when you don't have to spend $214 million to do it.

Leveraging Liriano

February, 4, 2011
The last time I had the opportunity to write in this space, I was calling out a contract extension for Francisco Liriano as a top impending priority for the Twins. Six months later, nothing has changed.

Following that early August post, Liriano finished up his outstanding 2010 campaign, earning both a Game 1 postseason nod and AL Comeback Player of the Year honors. His core numbers -- a 14-10 record and 3.62 ERA -- aren't fully reflective of his dominance.

The southpaw ranked second among AL pitchers in strikeouts per nine innings, and sixth in ground ball percentage. In 191 2/3 innings, he allowed only nine home runs -- five of them in the final two weeks of the season, when he appeared to wear down a bit. It seems safe to say that the former rookie phenom has returned to form.

Liriano is still only 27, and having missed a year due to Tommy John surgery his arm is 26 (in terms of MLB service, anyway). Right now, coming off a season in which his ERA and win/loss record were decidedly ordinary, seems like the perfect time to strike a multiyear deal at a bargain. Should Liriano put together the kind of season his peripheral numbers -- and nasty stuff -- suggest he's capable of, waiting a year could cost the Twins dearly.

A three or four-year contract makes plenty of sense for both sides. The Twins lock up the only pitcher in the organization with true ace potential at a reasonable price, while Liriano -- still arbitration eligible through 2012 -- gets some insurance for his surgically repaired and sometimes fickle left arm.

Unfortunately, it sounds as though general manager Bill Smith has his sights set on a one-year deal for Liriano.

-- Nick Nelson writes Nick’s Twins blog, a blog about the Minnesota Twins.

In Minnesota, another win for hitters

January, 28, 2011
I guess we should have seen this one coming:

    The Minnesota Twins will take down the pine trees behind center field wall. Hitters complained the trees made it difficult for them to pick up the ball out of the pitcher's hand.

    The 14 trees swaying in the wind, and the shadows they cast, led several hitters from the Twins and other teams to voice their displeasure.

    Twins President Dave St. Peter says the team is still trying to determine what to do with the trees. Relocating them inside the ballpark is a possibility. The team will also install a material on the batter's backdrop that cuts down the glare during afternoon games.

I suppose the Twins don't have a choice, but I still find this news disheartening. The Mariners spent years trying to do interesting things with their area beyond the center-field fence, but ultimately just gave up and installed something ugly. Now the Twins are going to do the same; it just didn't take them nearly as long to give up.

I would like to know when they started calling that area "the batter's eye." Because it was probably at roughly the same time that the batters got involved in ballpark design.

Personally, I don't consider this a positive development. I'm all for safety; I'm on record having written, many many times over the years that baseball should be even less dangerous than it is. But were those pine trees really endangering anyone? Must every ballpark be modified to meet the hitters' demands?

There are times when I wish the players would just be players and let the owners be owners.

Making Tony Oliva's case

December, 7, 2010
All this talk about Ron Santo's Hall of Fame chances has the Minnesota Post's Steve Aschburner just a bit riled:
    Did you know that Tony Oliva routinely finished higher in the voting than players who already are enshrined in Cooperstown?

    It's true. Oliva's 15 years on the writers' ballot ran from 1982 through 1996. In the 10 years that Pittsburgh second baseman Bill Mazeroski also was on the ballot, Oliva got more votes every time. In the seven years that he shared the ballot with 1967 NL MVP Orlando Cepeda, Oliva finished higher six times.

    Wait, there's more. In the three years near the end of Oliva's initial candidacy (1994-96) that relief ace Bruce Sutter was on the ballot, the former Twin outpolled him. And in 1995 and 1996, Oliva got more votes than Boston slugger Jim Rice.


    Oliva's wait could get longer still, if the emotions that were tapped by Santo's death last week surface again when the Vets Committee convenes next year. As talented as the Cubs third baseman was at the plate and in the field — he was a five-time Gold Glove winner, a nine-time NL All-Star and a Hall of Famer on each ballot I cast that bore his name — Santo routinely finished behind Oliva in the writers' voting. Well behind, in fact, with an average "finish" between 10th and 11th place. Oliva, on average, ranked between sixth and seventh during their 12 years together on the ballot.


    Just so everyone knows that Oliva has the same hopes, desires and dreams, without the same post-playing visibility or even sympathy. And he deserves it just as much or more.

    Enough with the waiting already. Enough with posthumous inductions or worse, baseball's on-deck circle. There's a distinction, I suppose, to being the Greatest Player Not in the Hall of Fame. But it's not one any of them wants.

Hear, hear! Let's put yet another corner-outfielder-slash-DH into the Hall of Fame. Because, you know, there just aren't enough of them in there already.

As Dayn Perry pointed out Monday, there are 44 corner outfielders in the Hall of Fame ... and 10 third basemen. Don't those numbers seem just a little out of whack?

Oliva was, it should be said, a great player for eight years (1964-1971). But that's essentially his career. Before those eight years, he didn't play. After those eight years, he was hurt and didn't play well. If we're going to start electing players to the Hall of Fame with eight-year careers, I've got a list longer than your arm. Yes, he has drawn significant support from Hall of Fame voters in the past. Those Hall of Fame voters were misguided.

As for the Greatest Player Not in the Hall of Fame, I've got that list, too. It's distinguished by the presence of names like Bill Dahlen, Pete Rose, Bobby Grich, Tim Raines, Barry Larkin, Edgar Martinez, Roberto Alomar, Alan Trammell, and (yes) Ron Santo. I suppose Tony Oliva might be on that list, too, if my arm were a lot longer.

Meanwhile, Kirby Puckett's in the Hall of Fame. Sheesh. You'd think a Twins supporter would be happy with one short-career outfielder in Cooperstown.

Does Bill Hall have 'super utility' to Sox?

November, 4, 2010
From the tail end of Theo Epstein's conference call today (which was mostly about exercising the one-year option in David Ortiz's contract):
    Yeah, we’d love to have Bill Hall back in the right circumstances. He really, I thought, blossomed this year in a super-utility role. He played so well, in fact, especially in terms of his power production that he might attract interest from a number of teams as an everyday player and get more substantial playing time. And if that happens, I’m sure that would be of interest to Billy. If later in the offseason, he’s in a position to consider a super-utility role and based on the moves we’ve made with our everyday players, that type of player makes sense on our roster, I’m sure we’ll be talking. He was nothing but a great teammate while he was here and a contributing player.”

I think the term "super utility" is a fairly recent invention, don't you?

The first player I recall being used in a super-utility role was Tony Phillips.

Originally a shortstop, Phillips later became a second/third baseman, and finally qualified for super-utility status by becoming an occasional outfielder as well. In 1988, Phillips started one game at shortstop, one game in right field, three games in center field, 14 games in left field, 14 games at third base, and 20 games at second base. He also appeared in three games at first base. Which is to say, he did everything except pitch and catch.

All this was masterminded by Tony La Russa, of course.

Phillips might have been the first player who did that (except as a stunt), but my quick-and-dirty search suggests that the "first Tony Phillips" was actually Cesar Tovar, who played for the Twins in the 1960s. In 1968 (for example), Tovar started eight games in right field, 12 at second base, 15 in left field, 20 at shortstop, 29 in center field, and 68 at third base. Tovar also played first base, catcher, and pitcher for one inning apiece in this game. Which obviously was a stunt, as he became the first major leaguer to play all nine positions in one game. Granted, a stunt that worked exceptionally well, as Tovar pitched a scoreless first inning and scored one of the Twins' runs in a 2-1 victory.

Tovar did this sort of thing for about six years, and usually drew a bit of down-ballot MVP support, probably because of his versatility. When we think of Bill Hall and Tony Phillips -- and Chone Figgins in 2004 and '5 -- we should think of Cesar Tovar, the first Super Utility Man.

Again, as near I can tell. Of course we can all come up with our own definition. But the important thing is that you have to play the infield and the outfield. If you're just playing the infield, you're a utility infielder; if just the outfield, a fourth outfielder (unless you're Andres Torres, in which case you're a center fielder who's occasionally slumming it). And you also have to play more than one position in the infield.

Last year, Hall started 34 games in the outfield and 51 games in the infield, but all 51 were at third base.

This year, Hall started 53 games in the outfield and 43 games in the infield: 38 at second base, three at shortstop, two at third base. My preference would be to see a Super Utility Man play a few more games at shortstop or third base. But who am I to argue with Theo Epstein?

Gardenhire powerless against Yankees

October, 9, 2010
There is a parallel dimension -- actually, an infinite number of parallel dimensions -- in which the Minnesota Twins scored four or five runs Saturday night against the New York Yankees. In this dimension, the Twins still lost the game, because the Yankees still scored six runs.

The other big difference between that dimension and ours? In that dimension, wiseacres like me are questioning Ron Gardenhire's choice of Brian Duensing to start a game the Twins absolutely had to win (in this dimension, anyway).

Duensing posted a 2.63 ERA this season. Granted, he started only 13 games this season. But including last season, Duensing has started 22 games in the major leagues, and in those games he's 12-3 with a 2.93 ERA. You can't blame Duensing's manager for being impressed by those numbers. In this or any other dimension.

Still, it's not clear that Duensing is the Twins' third-best starter. His career strikeout-to-walk ratio is solid: 2.27. He's also left-handed, which is little help against the Yankees' right handed (and switch) hitting lineup. Meanwhile, Scott Baker entered 2010 as the Twins No. 1 starter, is a righty, and his 3.44 strikeout-to-walk ratio this season was the sixth best in the American League.

In a parallel dimension, the Twins picked up a couple of key hits Saturday night. They still lost, though, because Duensing gave up five runs. In that same universe, Baker actually relieved Duensing and fared quite a bit better. And guys like me wondered why Baker didn't just start the game, as his entire career suggested he should have.

In this dimension, though? The Twins could manage just one run against Phil Hughes, Kerry Wood, Boone Logan, David Robertson, and Mariano Rivera. In this dimension, Gardenhire was irrelevant.

For Twins and Yanks, different day, same story

October, 7, 2010
Once again, This is what these Yankees do.

Sure, it's easy (if you're a Twins fan) to complain about Hunter Wendelstedt.

[+] EnlargeMariano Rivera
AP Photo/Jim MoneAndy Pettitte, a setup man and Mariano Rivera: It's a formula that's been working for the Yankees for many years.
It's easy (if you're a card-carrying member of the ASGAA) to wonder if Carl Pavano should have been lifted after the sixth inning. Sure, he'd thrown only 75 pitches at that point. But he'd been in serious trouble in the fourth inning, in the fifth he'd given up a long home run to Lance Berkman, and in the sixth he'd started behind every hitter. Maybe, just maybe, in a game like this against a team like this, you take your 75 pitches and your 2-2 score and give Pavano an attaboy and you turn to your fine bullpen for the rest of the game.

Considering that Pavano couldn't retire anybody in the seventh before getting lifted -- and eventually he was charged with two more runs -- leaving him in for those four batters in the seventh doesn't look so brilliant.

There's little reason to think it would have made any difference. Because there's little reason to think the Twins would have scored again, ever. In the sixth, they'd evened the score at 2-2 on Orlando Hudson's home run. Two batters later, Delmon Young tripled, but moments later died on third base. Maybe Joe Girardi should have pulled Andy Pettitte after his sixth inning ... but like Ron Gardenhire, Girardi sent his started back out for the seventh. Unlike Gardenhire, Girardi was rewarded with a 1-2-3 inning (including two strikeouts).

In the eighth, Kerry Wood came in and blew the Twins away.

In the ninth, Mariano Rivera came in and blew the Twins away.

Pettitte, setup man, Rivera ... It's a formula that's been working for the Yankees for only about 15 years. And there's not a terribly lot that Ron Gardenhire can do about it. With only a couple of outstanding hitters in their lineup, the Twins are simply ill-equipped to come back in the late innings once they've lost a lead.

And with a number of outstanding hitters in their lineup, the Yankees are exceptionally well-equipped to have a late-innings lead.

This is just what these Yankees do. Especially against these Twins.

Yankees follow script perfectly, typically

October, 7, 2010
Well, this is why people have been picking the Yankees, even with their one big shortcoming ...

CC Sabathia won 21 games this season. His opponent Wednesday night, Francisco Liriano, won only 14 games. Sabathia's 3.18 ERA wasn't among the league's very best ... but it was better than Liriano's 3.62 mark.

Did Sabathia really pitch better than Liriano, though?

Sabathia did throw quite a few more innings than Liriano. That does count for something, when you're evaluating their seasons. But durability over the course of six months becomes relatively unimportant in a single game. Maybe Sabathia goes seven innings and Liriano goes six, or six and one-third. Big deal.

This season, Liriano struck out 9.4 hitters and walked 2.7 per nine innings. Sabathia struck out 7.5 and walked 2.8 per nine innings.

Advantage: Liriano.

There's more to pitching than strikeouts and walks. Granted, not a lot more. But more.

For example, keeping the ball in the park. Sabathia gave up 20 home runs this season. Liriano gave up nine; his home-run ratio was the best in the American League.

There are, roughly speaking, three things a pitcher can control: strikeouts, walks, and home runs. Liriano equaled Sabathia in one of those things, and did significantly better in two of them. Liriano outpitched Sabathia for six months, and there wasn't any particularly good reason to think Liriano wouldn't outpitch Sabathia in tonight's particular game.

Except for one thing: There's more to baseball than pitching.

After New York scored four runs off Liriano in the sixth inning, Ron Darling said, "This is what this Yankee team does."

One inning later, Mark Teixeira put the Yankees ahead with a two-run homer. This Yankee team does this, too.

This Yankee team led the American League in scoring this year, and lately most of their key hitters have been both healthy and productive.

CC Sabathia won 21 games this season for two reasons: He pitched well, and the Yankees averaged nearly six runs per game when he started. That's a winning combination.

Tonight they scored six runs, and Sabathia got No. 22.

This is what this Yankee team does.

Can Twins take advantage of Yanks' weakness?

October, 5, 2010
It's About the Money and Nick's Twins Blog have teamed up to preview the Yankees-Twins Division Series, and here's one bit of their latest installment:

    IIATMS: With Sabathia and Pettitte going in Games 1-2 and 4-5 (if needed), how much concern do you have about the lineup’s ability to score? The team is markedly weaker against lefties. Everyone loves Jim Thome but he’s posting a .241/.298/.471 slash line against lefties this year. And Mauer isn’t exactly healthy, either.

    NTB: It’s absolutely a major concern. The impetus will be on the lineup’s right-handed hitters to step up and perform against these starters, which is a bit alarming since Michael Cuddyer had a very pedestrian year and rookie Danny Valencia saw his bat cool off considerably in the final week or so of the season. The key hitter in these games may very well be Delmon Young, who will probably bat from the clean-up spot.

Gee, this doesn't sound real good for the Twins, does it? When their key hitter might, in four of five games, be Delmon Young?

As somebody somewhere pointed out, the Twins were a really good offensive club this season ... except roughly half their goodness derived from Justin Morneau's incredible first half. Without Morneau, the Twins' attack is just decent.

The Yankees' weak underbelly is obviously their starting pitching, other than CC Sabathia. It's not at all clear that the Twins are well-equipped to take advantage.

Yanks' righty relievers key against Twins

October, 5, 2010
Nick's Twins Blog asked It's About the Money, Stupid five questions about the Yankees heading into their Division Series, and here's one of them:
NTB: Give us a breakdown of the Yankees bullpen. Mariano Rivera struggled a bit late in the season but he had another great year and is a postseason legend. Beyond him, however, this doesn't appear to be one of the better groups in baseball. Is there a lefty specialist that you'd trust against the likes of Joe Mauer and Jim Thome late in a game?

IIATMS: Our relief corps got better as the year went on. They ended with a 3.47 ERA (0.02 better than the Twins). Our FIP is not great at 4.06, but blame that on Mo Rivera, whose FIP is usually higher than his ERA (this year a full point higher). The addition of Kerry Wood at the trade deadline was a huge help down the stretch (0.69 ERA, .160 BA against, 10.73 K/9). We don’t expect Wood to be that good in the post-season, but he doesn’t have to be that good to help get us to Mo. As for our LOOGY? That would be household name Boone Logan, a guy whose mere appearance warming in the bullpen used to trigger a spasm of hate tweets in Yankeedom. Only Logan ended the season with an ERA under 3. Against lefties he had a K/9 of over 12 and a FIP of 1.87. He also got better as the year went on: he allowed just one earned run in 13 innings of pitching in July and August. That’s not bad for a LOOGY, and no, we don’t trust Logan versus Joe Mauer in a high-leverage situation. If you know of a LOOGY who IS effective against Joe Mauer, please let us know who that LOOGY is, and we’ll sign him to an eight-figure free agent contract before Wednesday. Only kidding. We wouldn’t do that. So there wouldn’t be any harm in recommending a LOOGY to us. You can trust us.

As usual, for the Yankees it'll be all about getting the ball to Mariano Rivera. Everybody knows about the question marks following CC Sabathia in the rotation, but that impacts the bullpen, too; if Joe Girardi can't count on his other starters, he'll be going to his relievers that much earlier. And they would seem to be in pretty good shape there, with Joba Chamberlain pitching better than his (4.40) ERA and Kerry Wood pitching brilliantly since joining the Yankees.

But those guys will need to pitch well. Because even if you have more faith in Boone Logan than IIATMS does, it looks like he'll be the only lefty in the bullpen. Which means the Yankees' middle-relieving righties will have to retire the Twins' tough lefty hitters at least a few times.

Postseason roster questions: AL Edition

September, 30, 2010
With the American League playoff teams set, we asked our SweetSpot Network bloggers to address each club's biggest roster decision entering their Division Series ...

Rays: The Rays' uneven play in September seemingly leaves several big decisions heading into October. But neither the playoff rotation (Joe Maddon has already committed to a four-man playoff rotation that, based upon his consistent support for Jeff Niemann, will be Shields, Garza, Price and Niemann) nor the makeup of the bench (Dioner Navarro, Rocco Baldelli, Brad Hawpe, Dan Johnson, and Desmond Jennings are all similarly limited players) seem as if they will be surprises.

No, the biggest decision heading into October is what to do with emotional leader Carlos Pena. If it weren't for a putrid May (.233 OBP, .250 SLG), his September 2010 (.278/.231, two home runs) would be the worst month of Pena’s career, resulting in a temporary stay on the bench. Maddon even spent two afternoons working with Pena in the cage, hoping that a different approach might break his slump ... and it worked (Pena walked and homered in the Rays' playoff-clinching win Tuesday night). Obviously, the Rays don't want a scuffling Pena adding an automatic out to the lineup. But I suspect that Pena's power potential -- not to mention the psychology of the situation -- will force Maddon’s hand into putting No. 23 on the lineup card in virtually every game.

-- Mark Heilig, The Ray Area

Rangers: Of the (very) few remaining areas of postseason roster uncertainty for the Rangers, first base is probably the biggest. Jorge Cantu will likely start against any lefty opposition, but a small-sample-sized hot streak -- and a lofty defensive reputation -- for Chris Davis rallied some support for carrying him over the average-hitting Mitch Moreland as the primary playoff first baseman. Just one problem with that: Davis has a lengthy track record of pronounced failure. He's been banished to the minors three times in the last two seasons (all due to a failure to hit), and it's hard to fathom how the Rangers could roll the dice on such a persistently unreliable player going into one of the most important series in franchise history.

-- Joey Matschulat, Baseball Time in Arlington

Twins: By clinching early, the Twins have had the luxury of spending these last two weeks of the regular season setting up their postseason roster. The rotation and lineup are firmly established, but one question lingers: What is the status of Justin Morneau?

Arguably the AL’s MVP front-runner when he went down with a concussion in early July, Morneau hasn’t played since. Recent reports have him feeling better and better, but with the long layoff there’s essentially zero chance he’ll be written into the starting lineup for a playoff game.

If he’s well enough to swing and run, though, could the Twins use him as a bench weapon? Jim Thome was initially signed to fill that role but is now a starter. Even a rusty Morneau is probably a better pinch-hitting option than anything else the Twins have.

- Nick Nelson, Nick's Twins Blog

Yankees: The Yankees' rotation, after CC Sabathia, represents the biggest decision the organization faces. The logical assumption is CC-Andy Pettitte-Phil Hughes to start the first three games. If the Yankees start on the road, however, that puts Hughes at home for Game 3, where he's been less effective. Starting Hughes in Game 2 would give Pettitte more time to rest his back and allow Hughes to battle on the road. The Yanks' Game 4 starter -- assuming CC isn't taking the ball again -- remains the biggest issue, as A.J. Burnett has been awful and Javy Vazquez continues to prove that he's unreliable (at best). Ivan Nova just might be the Yanks' Game 4 starter ... at least for the first four innings, as he seems to hit the wall in the fifth. In all likelihood, however, Burnett will be the Yankees' No. 4 starter.

- Jason Rosenberg, It's About the Money

(Later today, the National League's prospective playoff teams ...)

Defending Gardy (not that he needs it)

September, 18, 2010
Joe Posnanski on his favorite manager:

OK, so, it’s happening again … every year I feel more and more certain that there has to be something I’m missing. I had a long talk with someone close to the Minnesota Twins … this someone is the latest in a long series of people who want me to understand just how wrong I am about Ron Gardenhire.

A little history: In 2008, I wrote a series of columns stating what I believe — that Ron Gardenhire is the best manager in baseball. This led more than a few people to believe that I was completely off my rocker and many of those people were Minnesota Twins fans who watched the man manage every single day and, as such, could recite hundreds and hundreds of reasons why Gardenhire was, in fact, a dreadful manager.


I think Ron Gardenhire is the best manager in baseball. I think that not based on what we see but what we can’t see. I base this not on what I think a manager should do but on success. I base this not on individual moves but on the basis that the Twins are there on top one more time.

That someone close to the Twins — he would know more about this than I do. And I respect his opinion. And he insists that the Twins win DESPITE Gardy not BECAUSE of Gardy. And you know what? It could be true.

But you know what else? They sure do keep on winning despite him. So if nothing else, Gardy is the best I’ve ever seen at minimizing the damage he can cause and keeping his own deficiencies from ruining the story. It’s a lesson all of us could probably learn.

You really should read the whole piece because Joe's really a good writer. But if you just don't have the time, here's the condensed version:

1. The Twins win almost every year.

[+] EnlargeRon Gardenhire
Dennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireRon Gardenhire's Twins have gone 43-16 since July 10.
2. Historically, they've had one of the lowest payrolls in their division.

3. This year, they've got a fairly high payroll, but a lot of that money's going to Joe Nathan (who missed the season) and Justin Morneau (who's missed the second half of the season).

4. Since July 10, the Twins have gone 43-16 and crushed their divisional foes.

If not Gardenhire, then who? Yes, the front office deserves a great deal of credit for constructing a roster that's good enough to win, almost every year. It's also true that every year -- or most years, anyway -- the Twins' roster is good enough in March that they figure as competitive for the division title, if not as outright favorites.

Still, I think the prudent position holds that much and perhaps most of what a manager does can simply not be quantified, because a huge part of his job is managing personalities rather than performances. A well-timed pat on the back (or a kick in the butt) might make a bigger difference than a well-timed pitching change.

Another prudent position: Managers make moves that don't make sense, based on the numbers we're looking at ... but we often don't have all the numbers.

If we did have absolute knowledge, Gardenhire might look better than we think.

But even if he wouldn't, it's a bit beyond me how anyone could argue with the results. Just because we can't precisely quantify why something is happening doesn't mean that it's not, in fact, happening.

Ron Gardenhire's probably your 2010 Manager of the Year. And with just one World Series win, he's probably heading for Cooperstown, too.